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Disney's latest animated adventure is Raya and the Last Dragon. This release comes as Disney shifts its focus to streaming, a strategy adopted before the pandemic through the disrupting film world. Raya and the Last Dragon is the second film released for the Disney Premier Access program, the first being the live-action Mulan. The new film has stunning Southeast Asian influenced graphics that tell the story of a devastated world, with a young woman as the only hope. There is action, excitement and a lot of humor thanks to the always charming Awkwafina. Interestingly, as I wrote this review, I like Raya and the Last Dragon even more than I did while watching it.
The film begins with the setting of a post-apocalyptic world, certainly the first time for a Disney movie. The fictional world of Kumandra has a rich history, with dragons bringing them peace and harmony. However, an ancient evil menace known as Druun saw all dragons wiped out. The last sacrifice of the Last Dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina) saved everything. However, a remnant of that dragon magic, a gem created a new problem. Several nations claimed ownership, creating new conflicts.

Raya and the Last Dragon is about the titular character, the tribe of the heart, the ones who have the gem now. Raised as a guardian of the dragon gem, Raya's father (Kelly Marie Tran) instills in her the idealism that could unite the world. But one mistake by him ends up making things worse, leading to the desolate world the film opens with. This changes Raya as she tries to find redemption by searching for the Last Dragon to help correct his mistake.
Raya is the daughter of the leader of one of the nations in this fictional world. So like a king. Therefore, she is a princess, in all respects. Making it a Disney Princess movie and one that doesn't conform to traditional norms of how such a movie should be. For example, the film lacks a love story. Romance isn't even a plot point here. Raya and the Last Dragon, on the other hand, focuses on determining its main character, but in a way that also subverts the tropes of the hero's quest for redemption.

Raya is the main character in the film. Yet the narrators blend her narrative with one about the world. They try to balance idealism with practicality. Even though the message gets hammered at home at times, it doesn't detract from the experience. It would also be unfair to describe this film as Raya's journey when in reality it is the journey of this whole world, represented by a few keys. And the challenges they overcome to believe and trust each other to literally change the world.
The Druuns are these strange beings who end up destroying the world, almost like a plague. The final message of the film is for everyone to unite and fight against these creatures. The whole thing seems very obvious compared to what the world experienced during 2020, although it is not clear how much those events may have influenced the story. It takes years to make these films. However, this wouldn't be a fair review of Raya and the Last Dragon if I didn't point out that messages like these work better when they are more subtext than text.

Especially when there's a lot to Raya that she completely subverts the usual Disney movie tropes. For one thing, this is not a musical. And despite the disappointment of my young daughters, the choice to make this film not a musical certainly serves the gravity of the story. There is also a level of realism when it comes to the tension in the action scenes, which is much more effective when the film stays grounded. And yes, I realize there is a talking dragon in the film. When we engage with a gender story we accept certain impossible things. This is why it is so important to present the characters, conflict and emotion of the story in easily recognizable ways.
Raya is an extraordinary character. He has a single goal and focuses on achieving it. Throughout the film, Raya is in the service of the story and not the other way around. In many ways, Raya is a freedom fighter or activist fighting to save the world at the expense of her own safety. And these aspects are never glorified or exaggerated. Which makes Raya one of my favorite Disney princesses ever! The strong characterization of her in Raya and the Last Dragon is a big part of why my review is so positive.

One thing I really liked is how comfortable she feels about her in combat. The character also never loses a comic rhythm. She is as skilled with sharp beats as she is with her sharp sword. It's an action dynamic that we rarely see in a principes movie

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